Otavalo Markets 

We left Emma and Bill in Banos and headed north to Otavalo where supposedly the biggest market in South America occurs every Saturday. The bus trip was 6 and a half hours of uneventfulness which included not seeing the Volcano Cotapaxi again as it was covered in clouds.
The next morning we went for a wander around the town and inspected the market. There is a permanent one there everyday but it just swells into the neighboring streets on Saturday. We seemed to be the only gringos around so were chased around the market by the sellers trying to get us to buy. It was quite amusing but again I find it quite uncomfortable bartering and there were a few times where my original price was accepted so I knew I was not going low enough. Their wares where beautiful, especially their tapestries and alpaca blankets with wonderful Aztec designs on them. If I had the room I would have bought so many. We walked away with our pockets a little lighter and a handmade tapestry in our bag.
We then decided to head up to a bird rehabilitation park we had heard about up in the hills surrounding the town. The drive up was beautiful with little farm lands surrounded by beautiful towering peaks and a lake.
The bird sanctuary was a Spanish villa with stunning gardens. The entrance fee of $4 each was pretty steep we thought but I suppose you are contributing to a good cause as the spiel we read in Lonely planet says they rehabilitate birds of prey.
We had a walk around the Avery and saw all sorts of birds from owls to Hawks to condors. All the signs were in Spanish so we weren’t sure but it seemed more like a zoo than a rehabilitation center. I don’t really like seeing any bird in a cage let alone large ones but maybe these ones couldn’t go back into the wild for some reason.
There was a bird show happening so we made our way to the pavilion overlooking the valley. On the way we passed an enclosure with two Andean condors in there. Up close they are giant! Standing around a metre tall. Further around we came to an enclosure with 2 bald headed eagles and several other eagles and hawks. These were all chained to a perch by their feet with about a meter rope for them to move. This was quite confronting and a little sad really. We sat down for the show and soon discovered that the birds that were chained were the ones that were in the show. It was pretty impressive to see such big birds flying so close to you. We had seen quite a few bald headed eagles in the wild in America but never this close. Again the show was all in Spanish so we couldn’t figure out why these birds were not being rehabilitated and instead being used for the show. All in all we were a little disappointed with it but the birds themselves were spectacular! 
Upon returning to the town we went for a drink or two watching the hustle and bustle of the market and the immense job of packing up that is done after every day. They take getting everything to the car in one go to a new level! 
During the day near the square there was a little concert being set up and we soon realized it was to get donations for the earthquake. They were collecting basics like water and toilet paper. Tim went in and asked what was the best thing to buy and the man said anything medical. So we went to the pharmacy and purchased a whole box of antibiotics. It’s so funny what you can just go in and ask for over the counter here! The music at the concert was Andean folk which of course included pan pipes.
Bill and Emma arrived that night so the next day we were off to see the giant market all together. Well it didn’t disappoint as it really had spilled out in all directions around the central market. The other market that happens on Saturday just down the road was the animal market where all manner of animals are bought and sold. I was a little apprehensive to say the least about visiting this market, but was pleasantly surprised with the upkeep of the animals. Except maybe the chickens, they seemed to get the raw end of the stick.
Cows, pigs, goats, Guinea pig, puppies, chickens, chicks and quail were all for sale and the hustle and bustle and bartering was something to behold. That market was definitely for the locals! S So this was our best glimpse of Cotopaxi.    
This owl was at the entrance to welcome us into the bird sanctuary.

 
A fantastic backdrop for the show.

   
Nice shots of the birds in flight.

    
Sarah practicing.

 
A fairly large bald headed eagle.

   
The suburbs of Otavalo.

 
Otavalo city itself.

   
Some of the crafts for sale, the blankets caught Sarah’s eye.  Unfortunately just too big to lug around.

 
A huge variety of stuff for sale.

   
These ladies were sat comparing purchases.

 
Stubborn beast.

   
Selling leads for a whole variety of animals.

 
It was truly fantastic eyeing what people had bought.

   
The chicken man.

 
A girl buying a chick. 50 cents.

   
Haggling over a Guinea pig.

 
This man was leading his bull home.

  
And that’s all over.  A man taking his entire stall home in one go

Swings and tree houses 

Day 3 in Banos and the four of us decided to go to the volcano viewpoint and a little further on to a treehouse that has two swings positioned over the valley and surrounds. We could have walked up the steep path to both of these but we decided to fork out the $1 each to catch bus. Best decision ever as we met a few of the guys from the previous night and they had walked up and told us it was a tough hike. The views were beautiful but unfortunately we couldn’t see the volcano due to clouds and it also rained intermittently while we were up there.

After we tried out the swing minus Tim (it looked way scarier than it was). We were feeling adventurous and decided to walk back into town. Well it certainly was very steep and luckily we only managed to lose the path once. There was a bit of slipping and sliding on certain parts but we made it to the statue of the Virgin Mary and sat down to a well deserved packed lunch.

After getting back and a short nap later we headed out for a walk to a bridge which spans the valley as Bill was considering doing the bridge swing the next day. To his credit even after seeing how high this bridge was he was still keen to do it. There was no way either us of were doing it but we’re looking forward to egging him on the next morning! 

We continued on over the bridge and managed to finally get a picture of Tungurahua volcano. S

   
The local delicacy in Banos is taffy. Every morning you see men stretching the warm taffy on these hooks and then breaking them off into pieces. Very hygienic as you can see but tasty.

 The treehouse in question with the swings perched precariously over the valley.

   
The view looking back from the treehouse

So much fun and the view was amazing

    
It looks worse than it was, though I still wouldn’t want to fall off!

 The view from the hike back down. It took us a good hour and a half to walk back down and it was really steep in some places.

   
The steps leading down from the Virgin. A nice change from the mud slide of the hike.

 The Virgin. 

   
A street filled with vendors selling sugar cane juice. How they all survive I have no idea.

 Emma, Bill and myself checking out the bridge swing.

   
Finally a view of the volcano! 

 The view of Banos over the bridge.

Bike Riding and Waterfalls

There was plenty to do in Banos and so we started off with a pretty good breakfast at the local market. We managed to avoid chicken and rice and even got a coffee so on the whole felt much better.
Banos is located in a lush green valley and one of the activities on offer was riding bikes down the valley taking in the waterfalls so we jumped at the chance. One of the best things about the ride was that it was completely down hill (well almost). 
As we rode down we passed by a whole load of opportunities to zip line across the canyon and a variety of other swing activities. It was nice to see but we had already done our zip lining and so contented ourselves with admiring the fantastic views.
The place is so green!! In fact the whole of Ecuador was green we hadn’t seen a single brown patch. Once again we were treated to the sight of waterfalls, none of which were huge or massively impressive but nevertheless they were lovely to look at.
The pinnacle of the ride down was the Cascade de Diablo at the end of the ride. We locked up our bikes and headed down the valley to the viewpoint. It was another steep walk down but really quite pretty and very tropical.
At the bottom were a couple of houses and a bridge across the river. It must have been some feat constructing these buildings as we had a hard enough time just walking down!! Anyway the views of the falls were very impressive. There was a huge volume of water flowing and we both got soaked!!
After the climb back up to the road we were famished and luckily our Spanish is improving a little and we were able to translate a sign outside a restaurant that said that you could catch a fish and have it cooked straight away!! We couldn’t resist and it was delicious.
Outside the restaurant there was a queue of trucks waiting to give us a lift back up to town. Very civilized bike riding indeed, all of the hard work taken care of.
While the thermal baths we had had last night were good we had read that there were some more picturesque ones about 2 km out of town. Of we set (uphill again) but it was worth it. While I wouldn’t necessarily describe them as particularly beautiful or picturesque it was very relaxing bathing in the warm waters and this time the hot one was bearable.
We were all very relaxed when we had finished and enjoyed the downhill walk all the way home even though the heavens opened and we were soaked to the bone when we got back. Thank goodness for our trusty rain jackets!!
That evening we arranged to meet up with Bill and Emma for a drink and there were quite a few other “gringos” in the bar too so we had quite a good night swapped many stories and gleaning information off of one another.
Unfortunately while the company was good I am not sure the hygiene standards of “The Stray Dog” were quite up to scratch and four people out of the group ended up spending quite a bit of time on the toilet through the night!! T

   
Next stop, Tour de France

    
These were the more upscale rides on offer.

 
Some pics of the valley we were cycling down, loads of green and loads of waterfalls.  It was really nice coasting down the hill and then stopping to take in the views.

   
   
   
The path down to the main waterfall.

    
Sarah crawling through a tunnel for a better look.

 
If you look carefully you can see Sarah.  An impressive volume of water flowing.

   
The falls and the bridge.

   
I don’t know how many waterfalls there were but it wasn’t just the big ones which were pretty.

   
“Fishing” for my lunch, the odds were slightly in my favour.

  
Delicious though.

 
The baths just outside town, much less crowded, much more relaxing.

 

Latacunga to Banos

Just north of us in Latacunga was the active volcano of Cotopaxi and to be fair we had caught a brief glimpse of the peak but otherwise it had been too cloudy to see.
On our last day in Latacunga we wanted to go and see Cotopaxi but the weather was pretty filthy and it didn’t look as though we were going to see too much. Also the volcano was predicted to erupt sometime in the next few months so most of the national park was closed. So with all this against us and Sarah still not feeling the best we had a rest and recovery day instead.
In fact most of the day was spent online trying to find out information about the horrendous earthquake which had struck on the coast the night before. The damage looked terrible, 480 people were reported dead and upwards of 4000 injured. It was indeed both very surreal and very sad to be in the country at this time. For while this disaster had occurred, daily life seemed to be continuing as normal.
The next day we were off to Banos and compared to some of our other South American bus trips the ones in Ecuador were much easier and much shorter. There were loads of people waiting to show you onto the correct bus at the stations and it was all very easy.
On arrival at Banos we had a quick visit to the markets and then decided to have a walk around town and go for a quick hike. On the map the hike looked quite short and promised a view of the town. We soon found out that while other countries have created long winding paths which gently ascend the side of a mountain the Ecuadorian approach seems to be to walk straight up! We were exhausted by the time we reached the top but the view was pretty good.
The valley in which Banos sits is beautifully green and while the town itself isn’t particularly beautiful it does have a certain charm. It is most famous for its hot thermal springs and in fact a translation of the name is Bath not toilet as we first thought!!
After we came down from our hike we had a walk around town and it’s absolutely full of hostels, shops, restaurants, bars and nightclubs. But we are here during the off season and while there were a few people about it wasn’t really busy at all. In fact the atmosphere was really cool about the place and I have a feeling we were lucky to be here when it was a little quieter and a hit more relaxed.
Speaking of relaxing, we decided to spend the evening at one of the thermal baths. It was quite an experience. The venue was certainly dated as we would expect and on arrival we got shown to what looked like a dungeon to get changed. While the place was probably fairly clean it was all quite old and used and so felt a bit dirty.
Coupled with this the water was brown and the baths were all very full so it was a little difficult to fully relax. Still it was very nice being outside in a Luke warm bath gazing up at a waterfall cascading down just above us.
Our bath was pretty full so we decided to go and have a look around at the other baths and ended up at one with far fewer people in it. They all had a glint in their eye as we approached the pool and as we got it we found out why… It was rediculously hot!!! Sarah (probably still delirious from her illnesses) got all the way in but I only got into chest level. In fact I could tell exactly how far I had gotten because when I got out there was a distinct line of red across my chest.
Not quite what we were looking for so back we went to the warm pool!!
So far so good for Banos and we were both looking forward to spending a couple of days here, there looked like there was going to be plenty to do. T

   

Our favourite at the local market
  

A couple of shots of the streets in Banos.  Just so many bars, restaurants and shops.  All quiet now but it must get so busy.

 

   
The view from the top of our hike, what a reward.

 
The baths with the waterfall behind.

  
Not exactly the most enticing changing rooms.  Sarah referred to them as dungeons.

Earthquake in Ecuador!

So last night after our hike around Quilotoa crater lake we had just sat down to a well deserved beer and ordered some food when all of a sudden everything started to shake! We didn’t really know what was going on but the shaking didn’t stop. Not knowing what to do we rushed outside with everyone else and while I stood in the street, Sarah’s brain had kicked in and she stood in the doorway (thinking it was the strongest part of the building).
Luckily there was no damage but we were all quite shocked mainly due to the length of time it went on for. We have to admit that we went back inside and finished our meal by candlelight and it was only later when we got back to the hotel that we found out that the earthquake had struck on the coast of Ecuador and was measuring above 7.
Anitra had in fact already messaged us first to see if we were okay (thanks Anitra) and we sent out a couple of emails to say we were okay. The strangest advent of all this technology we have now is that when I woke in the morning Facebook was asking if I wanted to put out a post to say that I was okay!! 
Luckily it’s something I haven’t had to do before but a really good idea.
But anyway we are safe but as I read the news reports this morning we have found out that dozens have been killed and unfortunately we don’t know the extent of the damage yet. Our thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected in this beautiful country where everyone has been so friendly and inviting. T

   
The restaurant kept going!  But fortunately no other photos to show.
 

Volcanoes and getting lost

We discovered that our Spanish really wasn’t that bad yesterday morning as we again asked for desayuno (breakfast) and received curried chicken with rice and potatoes served with hot water and a bottle of instant coffee. Must be the local dish here.As my father would say it’s just packing! 

So I was feeling better after our rest day yesterday so we decided to catch a local bus out to Quilotoa where there is a massive crater lake, formed in the bowels of an extinct volcano. I have always wanted to climb a volcano and the one just down the road that was in contention is actually very active at the moment, so much so that they have shut down most of the national park surrounding it. We are going there tomorrow to try and get some shots.
 Quilotoa crater lake is roughly 10kms in circumference and you can actually walk all around the rim of it. Needless to say that was something we wanted to do. Apparently it would take 4 to 5 hours but I forgot to mention that it is 3500 to 3900 meters above sea level and it varies from these two heights all the way around so lots of peaks and troughs. Not so leisurely afterall! 

The view from the starting point is actually the best and boy is it spectacular. The water was more green and less aqua blue than Crater lake in Oregon and not as big but still beautiful. Apparently the water is green due to minerals in the crater. We started our walk along the goat track and soon found ourselves descending down the first hill. We realized how lucky we were in bringing our walking poles as it was quite slippery. We looked up and realized we had a fairly sizable incline coming up. The path was in the middle of two pretty steep drop offs and although the path was wide enough it was very vertigo inducing. Tim hasn’t has any real trouble on this trip but it was troubling a little bit. Fair enough really as I was also being extra cautious on where I was putting my feet. 

But we made it, along with the next 5 ascents and descents. When we were about 3/4 of the way around the crater the path split left and right. Right was uphill and left was a path cutting into the crater but not up. By this stage we had had enough of the ascents so we’re hoping for a cut around the peak. Needless to say we took the left! It started okay but soon became very narrow and about 45mins into it we came to a cliff that neither of us wanted to navigate. So back we tracked. To add salt to our wounds, it started to rain. That backtrack was tough, it sucked right royally. But we made it back and took the right path up the next ascent. 

Due to our short/long cut we had missed the last bus back but that was okay as there were hostels in Quilotoa. As we trudged back into town 6 and a half hours after we started we managed to hitch a ride back to the next town where the buses left more frequently. Currently on that bus back to Latacunga, thirsty and hungry but otherwise glad we did the hike (which at some points we had to use our hands as well so technically a climb). We have officially circumnavigated the rim of a volcano, even if it was extinct and no pools of lava were to be seen! S

   
The view from the starting point. No need to do the walk as it was the best view but we are suckers for punishment.

 The goat track on what we soon discovered was the easiest part of the walk.

   
A great shot of the path around.

 
The view looking away from the crater was also spectacular. Ecuador doesn’t seem to have any infertile land from what we have seen.

   
This is Michelle, a little local girl who is sent up around the path to sit in a shelter selling drinks etc. It certainly is a hard life for these kids, having to help contribute to put food on the table. 

 
The highest point of the crater.

   
View from the top.

 
As you can see from the next two photos , we really were walking along the rim of the crater. Quite scary at times.

   
 
The clouds rolled in and it became a little eerie!

   
The waters edge was really very beautiful and dramatic.

    
 The crazy path on our short cut which turned out to be us getting lost.

Latacunga 

Unfortunately our bodies have been desensitized to South America after our stay in the US and Sarah fell ill during our last night in Mindo. But soldiering on is what she does best so after popping a couple of pills we headed off towards Latacunga.
Latacunga is a city south of Quito and was going to be a good place to stop, rest and base ourselves for a few activities. On the drive down we were meant to be treated to views of Cotopaxi but unfortunately the weather denied us. But luckily we got there without any troubles and set about relaxing and getting Sarah better.
Luckily the magic pills did their job and it was a quick recovery but even so we took it very easy as the next few days were going to be far more hectic. Still we were staying in the old town area and so enjoyed a walk about and planned the next few days.
We certainly feel a little off the beaten track here as we haven’t seen any other gringos at all but that has actually been quite nice. The people have all been very friendly and while the town doesn’t boast any major attractions it has a certain charm/edge and it’s been really nice walking around looking at the sights and sounds.
There is not much English spoken here and we had an interesting time trying to order breakfast. I thought I was making progress with Spanish as the previous day I had understood about 50% of a 45 min long conversation with a taxi driver, but this morning it all fell apart. For breakfast I thought we were ordering eggs and fritters but instead we got salty egg omelettes and chicken and rice. Mmm tasty. Just what you need on a dodgy stomach!
While we were walking into town we spotted an excellent looking barbers and Sarah suggested I go for a spruce up. What fun it was, the chit chat wasn’t great but the guy was really good and had a good go at sorting out my beard. The cut throat razor was used and he was incredibly precise. It was a great experience and we all had a lot of fun. In fact there was lots of photo taking afterwards so hopefully we make it up on his wall!! T

   
The girl on the front desk wasn’t the friendliest but now we know what she thought of us (the first bullet point is the best)

 
We were expecting great coffee but so far this has been the standard.

   
The main monestary in Latacunga

    
Meat anyone?

 
The whole way around South America there have been little stalls selling food it’s just fantastic.

   
A more authentic market 

    
Looking like a local in the Panama hat.  Fruit salad on its way.

  
   
Me getting a spruce up! He was very precise with the cutthroat razor.

   
The final result, very smart.